A water bug, less than half an inch long, smoothly propels itself through the brackish water, scooping up algae and dead plants as it swims along.
A huge basking shark, often mistaken for a great white because of its enormous size, skims through the ocean with its over-sized mouth agape, collecting plankton as food.
What do these seemingly dissimilar organisms have in common? They’re both models for the “Row-bot,” a small, aquatic robot developed by scientists at the University of Bristol.
The researchers are hoping that their creation will one day play a major role in environmental clean-up.
Like its tiny insect prototype, called a Water Boatman (and like the open-mouthed basking shark), the Row-bot is designed to propel itself across the water and “eat” the microbes it scoops up.
But the Row-bot does not use batteries for power.
Rather, the device’s “stomach” houses a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that runs on the bacteria extracted from the water. The MFC breaks down the bacteria into carbon dioxide, protons, and electrons. The fuel cell then uses these elements to create an electrical current by mimicking bacterial interactions found in nature.
As the Row-bot glides across the water surface, more bacteria is taken into the “stomach” and the process keeps repeating. This allows it to move around the water continuously. In this way, it generates enough power to constantly seek out more pollution to feed upon.
So the Row-bot “feeds” on algae, oil and potentially other types of water pollution. But unlike conventional robots, it also never needs re-charging.
Its creators envision that one day the Row-bot will be able to autonomously (and indefinitely) swim around polluted waters, powering its movements with self-generated electricity.
In the following TED Talk video, Prof. Jonathan Rossiter, head of the Soft Robotics group at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, describes the Row-bot, and explains other possible applications for it:
But that’s not all.
Whereas the Row-bot’s parts are currently made of plastic, the University of Bristol scientists hope to change that.
With plastic components, the current Row-bot model must be electronically tracked and monitored so that it can be retrieved at some point. This limits the number of Row-bots that can be used at any one time.
But what if the Row-bot’s components were made from biodegradable materials? When they “die,” they would decay into nothing.
Scientists could then place a thousand, or maybe even a million, of these little guys into polluted waters all over the planet to clean up all our messes.
Wow! Who’da thunk it?